Observing in detail what the Government is proposing in relation to investment in Space, AI, Cyber. Technology Development along with other very significant procurement in ships, submarines, aircraft, army vehicles and right across the whole digital field combined with my reading of a ‘Wavell Room’ article from 2018 led me to start thinking about whether the Foreign Office, MOD and particularly in relation to defence procurement, the MOD’s Defence Equipment & Support organisation needs to think more about SQEP?
I will not dwell on the Integrated Review (IR) and of what was announced on Tuesday too much or indeed, of what will follow in the third instalment on Monday next in relation to cuts or the presumably later publication of the final IR element that includes defence industrial strategy that I am assuming will follow later, but however one looks at what the Government is planning in respect of future Foreign Policy, Defence and Security in the years to come the need for high quality expertise in order to carry the policy out.
In my commentary piece following publication of the second stage of the IR on Monday I emphasised specific concern as to whether the Foreign Office and MOD had a sufficient calibre of highly skilled expertise in-house that I viewed would be required in order to carry the Governments IR strategy and policy out. My innuendo within this was that both these important government departments would need to substantially raise their game by bringing in more experience in order to carry the policies through.
The Wavell Room article entitled ‘Gifted amateurs in a cut throat world; The RN and DE&S’ provided some interesting food for thought and is available to read on the internet. As the title suggests, it based on the experience of Royal Navy engineers and in part it was about some of those who spend time at DE&S being ill-prepared to ‘speak civvy’.
SQEP (Suitably Qualified & Experienced Personnel) is an acronym that has significantly grown in stature and importance over the past ten years and rightly so. Just as Risk Registers, Resilience and Sustainability have become watchwords of huge importance and a ‘must have’ for industry and commerce so too is SQEP important across all aspects of military and defence, aerospace and nuclear power engineering.
The SQEP term is important across all manufacturing, support and service-based elements of industry just as it is also across most aspects of the military. I know that it happens and for the most part I know that it is done well. But, given what the government has announced in IR in respect of policy intention and in respect of defence, when this is set against a need to do more for less and make defence more efficient and cost effective, does the MOD also need to raise its game in respect of SQEP? Quite probably it does.
That leads me to ask the question of what levels of SQEP the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and MOD already have? I cannot answer that question and I raise it only as a reminder of its importance.
My best guess is that SQEP has dramatically improved in respect of civilians employment at MOD Abbey Wood although I will take a lot of convincing to believe that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and MOD Main Building have sufficient numbers of highly qualified people required if Government policy as announced in IR is to be carried through.
But while I am more content that the calibre and strengths of civilian employees at DE&S have improved I do have concerns that middle ranking military officers who find themselves despatched to DE&S at Abbey Wood and whose design engineering skills may well be very limited by virtue of what they have been previously doing within the military and who may also heaven forbid see the virtues of having such specialist and detailed procurement knowledge as being unnecessary and bureaucratic, could well be a stumbling block.
I have no doubt that the doctrine will say otherwise and that I will be shouted down in flames by a handful of those involved. But this is an issue that for me keeps rearing its head and somehow, I fear that because of insufficient attention to SQEP the procurement system at Abbey Wood lack sufficient numbers of those inside the military that are able to develop and manage programmes through to acceptance and indeed, through life management.
I hope that I am wrong in suggesting what I have but if I am right then part of the problem is once again down to the antiquated process of promotions that is rife across all aspects of the military. Promotion too often requires moving on and that means the danger that by the time they have got on top of the job they move on.
Please correct me if I am wrong and while I completely understand the problem of leaving people in the same job too long, lack of motivation and incentive and that these factors combined hinder the potential of promotion, it is an issue that across all elements of a smaller military needs to be addressed.
Spending so much time with the military as I have personally done over the years, I also understand that the process of moving through a variety of specific roles and ranks is a necessary part of the promotion function. When a pilot or former navigator moves on from that role, they often move into various specialisms such as weapons, training, head off to staff college and then deploy before moving through a final raft of positions that may even take them to two- and three-star levels.
In the field of design engineering, procurement and through life support of equipment there are few other places to go. To be fair, many love the whole concept of engineering and procurement but it is the potential shortage of these specialisms that in a fast-changing digital world I fear that we are or will find ourselves short.
“The Defence Equipment and Support organisation (DE&S) based at Abbey Wood near Bristol is the central MOD hub for the acquisition, delivery, upkeep and disposal of military equipment, logistics and other support for the Armed Forces. A large and very important section of MOD that, working with industry, has responsibility for example of engineering design decisions along with costing and negotiating ultimate procurement together with ensuring through life support of equipment that may be in service for thirty years and more, DE&S hosts the overall commercial function of MOD operations.
Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) is a bespoke trading entity, an arm’s length body of the Ministry of Defence. According to a Freedom of Information request in 2010, Abbey Wood then employed 5,581 civilian staff and across all ranks, 1,106 military staff. According to detailed information published about DE&S in total the organisation employs 12,500 people in the UK and internationally and has a budget of £14bn.
Leaving aside those members of the military who may because of their experience in military engineering, design and procurement be employed at Abbey Wood, DE&S also facilitates members of Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force who will spend maybe a year at Abbey Wood enhancing procurement-based engineering requirements before going back to their individual forces.
DE&S which has already gone through a radical and very positive process of change over the past ten years and its importance in respect of commercial procurement, policy & legislation, supplier relations, skills & training, risk management, category management, income generation and exports cannot and should not be underestimated. I used to know the number when, but from a previous time looking into the DE&S operation, suffice to say that the MOD probably has around 100,000 individual contracts running at the same time.
Military equipment requirements are set by the MOD customer and the role of DE&S is to ultimately translate these into contracts, to manage the progress of industry in respect of design, development and delivery all the way through to in-service equipment commissioning. DE&S will also work alongside the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force in order to maintain and improve equipment procured through its operational life and also cost-effective disposal or, through a specific department, agree sales to third parties – a situation that is most common in decommissioned Royal Navy vessels.
CHW (London 18th March 2021)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785